From Heartbreak to Healing | Psychology Today

Diane Dreher photo

Source: Diane Dreher photo

When her husband left her the day before their 25th wedding anniversary, with divorce looming ahead, Rebecca Winn began a journey of healing in her garden. In her new memoir, One Hundred Daffodils (2020), she tells of one morning when she took her tea into the garden and began a healing process people have experienced for centuries. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the garden was seen as a symbol of the soul. Poets and philosophers believed that by reflecting on the life in our gardens, we could develop a deeper knowledge of ourselves (Dreher, 2001).

More recently, research has revealed the healing power of nature. Psychologists have found that connecting with nature can help relieve depression, improve our cognitive function, build compassion and connection, increase our vitality, and improve our psychological well-being (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008; Derubeis, Siegle, & Hollon, 2008; Ryan et al., 2010; Weinstein, Przybylski, & Ryan, 2009; Zhang, Howell, & Iyer, 2014).

For years, Rebecca Winn had been an award-winning landscape artist, creating

Rebecca Winn, used with permission

Source: Rebecca Winn, used with permission

gardens for others. But this time, she found valuable lessons in her own garden. “The garden has become one of my greatest teachers,” she says, “and like any great teacher, when I do not fully grasp a subject, [the garden] explains it differently, again and again, until I understand” (2020, p. 125). Recovering from years of emotional abuse beginning in childhood, she learned five vital lessons from her garden.

1. The lesson of presence. Time in the garden brought her the wisdom of mindfulness (see Howell, Dopko, Passmore, & Buro, 2011). Breathing in the fragrance of the rosebushes around her, she realized that “moments of joy surround us. This endless striving in the pursuit of joy deprives us of exactly that which we seek.” When we believe “that joy is ‘out there,’” we focus our attention on chasing after it, becoming increasingly anxious and frustrated. Our attachment to what we think we want blocks our ability to see what is really present in our lives (Winn, 2020, p. 82). Releasing attachment to such striving, she found joy in the present moment with the power of mindfulness, which has been shown to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression (Astin, 1997; Brown & Ryan, 2003; Williams, Teasdale, Segal, & Kabat-Zinn,  2007).

2. The lesson of appreciation. One fall morning she looked out her window, amazed to see her rose bushes covered with hundreds of monarch butterflies, warming their wings before resuming their long winter journey to Mexico. When they flew away, she whispered “thank you,” recognizing how important it is to appreciate the small moments of beauty in our lives (Winn, 2020, p. 133). Psychologists call these small acts of appreciation “savoring,” which increases our positive emotions and builds greater emotional health (Kiken, Lundberg, & Fredrickson, 2017).

3. The lesson of trust. For years, Rebecca Winn had been doubting herself, seeking validation from others. Unable to trust her own inner guidance, she often put her own needs aside and gave away her power. But she began learning about trust in her garden by trusting in nature’s processes, “trusting that there is a greater wisdom in a single blade of grass than we shall ever possess.” She began to see gardening “as a spiritual practice,” affirming a larger vision of meaning, (Winn, 2020, p. 217).Research in positive psychology has shown that experiencing a greater sense of meaning  enables us to flourish (Emmons, 2005; Seligman, 2011).

4. The lesson of acceptance. Since childhood, Winn had found it hard to ask for what she wanted, growing up with a sense of unworthiness and lack. But one day she broke this longstanding habit of lack by buying 100 daffodils. “Daffodils,” she says, “remind me that there is no limit to the amount of beauty, joy, abundance, and love available in the world, to me, to you, to everyone” (2020, p. 209). Gardeners know that when we plant daffodils in our gardens, they naturalize—they multiply. Each year they produce more bulbs, offering more daffodils, more beauty in the days to come. This parallels what psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found about the power of positive emotions, which “broaden and build” our resources and capacity for success and happiness (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002).

Rebecca Winn, used with permission

Source: Rebecca Winn, used with permission

5. The lesson of hope and renewal. Rebecca Winn tells of the time a young bird, a cedar waxwing, flew into her sliding glass door, falling stunned and wounded to the ground. Filled with concern and compassion, she went outside and gently stroked the young bird, leaving a fragrant sweet olive branch beside her. She called the local wildlife center, prayed, and then watched in amazement as the young bird slowly rose, looked at her, hopped around, then took off for the nearest low hanging tree branch. As she watched the little bird recover, she told herself, “If she can make it, so can I” (2020, p. 146).

In so many ways, being close to nature can bring us hope, the chance to learn, recover, and begin again (Kaplan, 1995). As Rebecca Winn recognized, we are all, like our gardens, “always, and forever, a work in progress” (2020, p. 292). 

Do these lessons from the garden resonate with you? What have you learned from your own garden? What lessons can you find in the natural world around you?


This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.

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